Author unknown (1859), Bungaree: King of the Blacks, All the Year Round, Dickens (Ed.), Volume I, No. 4.
There are few old Australian colonists to whom the name of Bungaree is not familiar; but I conceive it right that the whole world should know something of this departed monarch, and of his habits and peculiarities. Honoured, as I was, by his favour, politely greeted, as I always was whenever I met his Majesty in the streets of Sydney, flattered, as I was, when he invited me occasionally to accompany him in his boat to “go kedge fiss”, I considered myself as well qualified to become his biographer as was Mr. Boswell to write the life of Doctor Johnson, or Lord John Russell that of Thomas Moore.
King Bungaree and myself were contemporaries; but there was a vast difference between our ages. When I first knew him, he was an old man, over sixty and I a boy of twelve. It would be false to say that I cannot account for the great liking the king always had for me: for, the truth is, I was in the habit of lending him small sums of money, bread and meat, and not unfrequently a glass of rum. Many a time have I, slyly, visited the larder, and the decanters on the sideboard, to minister to the wants of the monarch. I used the word “lend”, because the king never said “give”. It was invariably “len’ it half a dump” (7½d.), “len’ it glass o’ grog”, “len’ it loaf o’ bread”, “len’ it ole shirt”. It is needless, perhaps, to state that, although in some respects the memory of King Bungaree was as extraordinary as that of the late King George the Third, he was utterly oblivious to the extent of his obligations, so far as repayment was concerned.
In person King Bungaree was about five feet eight inches high, not very stout and not very thin, except as to his legs, which were mere spindles. His countenance was benignant to the last degree, and there was a kind and humorous sparkle in his eye (especially when it was lighted up by liquor) which was, to say the least of it, very cheerful to behold.
King Bungaree’s dress consisted of the cocked hat and full dress-coat of a general officer or colonel, an old shirt, and that was all. I never saw him in pantaloons, or shoes, or stockings. Once, I remember he wore a worsted sock on his left foot; but that was in consequence of having wounded himself by treading on a broken bottle.
As the king was a person of irregular habits, he generally slept as well as fished in his clothes, and his tailor’s bill would have been enormous, even if he had had a tailor; but, as he “borrowed” his uniform, as well as his money, bread and rum, his finances were in no way embarrassed. Every new Governor, from Governor Macquarie down to Governor Gipps (during whose administration Bungaree died), supplied him with an old cocked-hat and full dress-coat; and almost every colonel commanding a regiment instantly complied when his Majesty pronounced these words: “Len’ it cock-‘at—len’ it coat—len’ it ole shirt”. Around his neck was suspended, by a brass chain, a brass plate. On this plate, which was shaped like a half-moon, were engraven, in large letters, the
“BUNGAREE. KING OF THE BLACKS”.
On the plate there was also engraven the arms of the colony of New South Wales—an emu and a kangaroo.
In point of intelligence and natural ability, King Bungaree was far from deficient. He was, in truth, a clever man; and not only did he understand all that was said to him in English, but he spoke the language so as to be completely understood, except when his articulation was impaired by the too copious use of ardent spirits, or other fermented liquors.
His Majesty changed his manners every five years; or rather, they were changed with every administration. Bungaree, like many of the aborigines of New South Wales, was an amazing mimic. The action, the voice, the bearing, the attitude, the walk, of any man, he could personate with astonishing minuteness. It mattered not whether it was the attorney-general stating a case to a jury, the chief justice sentencing a culprit to be hanged, a colonel drilling a regiment in the barrack-square, a Jew bargaining for old clothes, a drunken sailor resisting the efforts of the police to quiet him—King Bungaree could, in mere dumb show, act the scene in such a way as to give you a perfect idea of it. Now, as the governor, for the time being, was the first and most important person in the colony, it was from that functionary that King Bungaree took his cue; and, after having seen the governor several times and talked to him, Bungaree would adopt his excellency’s manner of speech and bearing to the full extent of his wonderful power. When I first knew Bungaree, General Darling was governor of New South Wales. Bungaree then walked the streets with his arms folded across his breast, his body erect, his pace slow and measured, with something of a military swagger in it, and the only salute he vouchsafed was a dignified, but very slight, inclination of his head. Even when his Majesty was so intoxicated that he could not walk straight, it was impossible not to recognise the faithfulness of the copy to the original. His mode of speech, too, was curt and somewhat abrupt. Even the words “Len it glass o’ grog”, came forth, rather in the tone of a command than of a request. But when General Darling left, and General Bourke became his successor, how very different was the demeanour and the deportment of King Bungaree! He walked briskly up George-street, with his left hand on his hip and his right arm moving to and fro, took off his cocked-hat periodically in recognition of salutes (most of them imaginary), and, when he neared the guard-house at the bottom of Church-hill, he would raise his right hand in the air and shake it, as a signal to the sentry not to turn out the guard to present arms at him.
The reader will have gleaned that King Bungaree was not temperate in his habits. Candour compels me to say that he was by no means particular as to the nature of his beverage. The only liquid to which he had, seemingly, any aversion, was pure water. Rum, gin, brandy, wine, beer, chili vinegar, mushroom catsup, or “bull” (coarse brown sugar, dissolved in water. It intoxicates the aborigines as effectually as alcohol), he would take in any quantity, from any person who could be prevailed upon to “lend” it to him; and, unfortunately, in order to get rid of his Majesty, the supply, in many instances, immediately followed the demand, and the king was too often to be seen, stretched, at full length, on a dust-heap near the wharves, fast asleep, and covered by myriads of flies, his cocked-hat doing the duty of a pillow: except when some little boy tore out the crown, and then pulled it over the king’s ankles: putting him, in fact, in felt stocks. So strong was this monarch’s passion for drink that I am perfectly satisfied that he would, at any moment, have abdicated his sovereignty for an old sugar mat, wherewith to make “bull”, although he would never have renounced his right to the title of “King of the Blacks”, or that brass plate, which he regarded as his “patent”.
With the cares of state Bungaree never troubled himself. His sovereignty, to all intents and purposes was a matter of sound and of mere form. His subjects never treated him with respect or obedience. His tyranny, in the strictly classical acceptation of the term, was confined simply to his Queens, five in number. These ladies were all much younger than the king, and were named respectively “Onion”, “Boatman”, “Broomstick”, “Askabout” and “Pincher”. These names, of course, were not given to them in their baptism (whatever may have been the aboriginal character of that rite), but were dictated, most probably, by the caprice of some of King Bungaree’s European advisers, on the various occasions of his consulting them on the point, and “borrowing” something of which he fancied he stood in need. Whether the Queens were much attached to the monarch, or the monarch to them, I cannot venture to say, nor can I form an opinion whether they bore the king company in his inebriation, out of courtesy, or from a natural desire to drink; but this I can state, with the positiveness of a biographer who derives his sources of information from personal knowledge, that I never saw their majesties (the Queens) sober when his majesty King Bungaree was drunk. The dress of these royal ladies was exceedingly grotesque. With the exception of a faded satin slip, an old bedgown, or a flannel petticoat, whatever beauty King Bungaree’s Queens possessed was, in every sense of the word, in its unadornment “adorned the most”. The only “foreign aid of ornament” that even Onion, the most fastidious of them as regarded personal appearance, ever resorted to, was a short clay pipe, intertwined with her hair; which, in point of colour and fineness, bore a strong resemblence to the tail or mane of an unbroken, unhandled, bay colt.
I have mentioned that I sometimes, when a boy, accepted the invitations of King Bungaree to go out with him in his boat to “kedge fiss”. His was a very old boat, a “loan” from Governor Macquarie, who cultivated Bungaree’s acquaintance, if not Bungaree himself; and upon all these occasions the Queens used to pull the rickety craft, while the king sat in the stern-sheets, and steered. The Queens, by turns, not only pulled the oars (only two) of the boat; but when the anchor—a large piece of stone tied to an old rope—was let go they baited the hooks, threw over the lines, and caught the bream and yellowtails, with which the harbour abounded in those days. Bungaree, meanwhile, sat still, smoked his pipe, and occasionally gave an approving nod or a kind word to the wife who hooked the fish fastest. When out in his boat—during Sir Richard Bourke’s administration—King Bungaree bore a stronger resemblance to Charles the Second than to any other monarch of whom I have read in history. He was cheerful, merry, facetious, gallant (except as to pulling and fishing), and amorous, without anything like coarseness in his outbreaks of affection. Fish constituted King Bungaree’s coin. The harbour of Port Jackson was his treasure-chest. When a sufficient quantity had been caught to purchase a loaf or two, and enough brown sugar to make a bucketful of “bull”, the anchor was weighed, and the boat rowed to shore. Fresh fish for tea were always marketable, and the Queens had never any difficulty in disposing of them at the public or private houses; receiving in return whatever articles they required to supply their own and the king’s immediate wants.
I must here record a little anecdote of King Bungaree. When his Majesty’s ships the Warspite, the Success frigate, and some smaller craft anchored in Sydney, Bungaree went on board all these vessels to welcome to his dominions the various commanders. The commodore, Sir James Brisbane, having heard of King Bungaree, and being informed of his approach, gave the order that he should be received with all the honours and formality accorded to persons of royal blood, save the firing a salute and manning the yards. The officers, who entered into the joke, were all assembled on the quarter-deck: the first lieutenant stood at the gangway, the commodore in his full-dress coat and cocked hat took his place at the capstan, the boatswain piped the side in the shrillest ear-piercing tones, and the drums and fifes made music to the air of “God save the King!” The moment King Bungaree placed his foot on the Warspite’s well-holystoned planks, the commodore uncovered his venerable head, and, placing his cocked hat beneath his left arm, with admirably acted humility, advanced, and offered King Bungaree his right hand. The king, who was then wearing his coat buttoned up to the neck, à la Sir Ralph Darling, received the homage which was paid him by the commodore, with just the amount of formal empressment that the governor himself would have exhibited under the circumstance of being similarly greeted. Having bowed, rather stiffly, to each of the officers on the quarter-deck, and having cast an approving, though cold glance at the guns, the hammock nettings, and the rigging, King Bungaree condescended to inquire the commodore’s name. “My name is Brisbane”, said the commodore, meekly. Bungaree, for at least two minutes, surveyed the commodore from head to foot, with a contemptuous expression of countenance. He had known one Brisbane (Sir Thomas) who had only left the colony, which he had governed for five years. That there could be two Brisbanes—that the world was big enough to hold two—King Bungaree could not believe. At length, his Majesty spoke as follows: “What you mean, sa? You Brisbane, sa? What for you, capping of big ship like this, sa, tell King Bungaree one big lie, sa? I know Brisbane, sa. He great frien’-o’-mine, sa. He len’ me this cock-hat, sa—this coat, sa—this shirt, sa. No, sa; not this shirt, sa. King Bungaree never tell a lie, sa. Capping Crotty, of 3rd Buffs, sa, len’ me this shirt, sa.” Captain Crotty was not a very tall man, and the garment to which Bungaree last alluded scarcely reached the monarch’s knees. “No, sa; you are not Governor Brisbane, sa. I show these gennelmen Governor Brisbane, sa.” Divesting himself, for the nonce, of the airs and manners of Sir Ralph Darling, Bungaree put on those of Sir Thomas Brisbane, walked the deck, spoke to several of the officers, and, taking a telescope from the hand of the signal-mid-shipman of the day, looked through it, into the heavens, and exclaimed “Ah!” Sir Thomas Brisbane was a great astronomer, and while in New South Wales had been constantly star-gazing. The commodore was so struck with King Bungaree’s imitation of his own first cousin, that he stood aghast; while the officers, unable any longer to preserve their gravity, indulged in a hearty peal of laughter.
“No, sa,” resumed Bungaree, addressing the commodore, and again acting General Darling, “you not Brisbane. But you very good man, I des-say. Never mind. I forgive you. I now feel very thirsty. Len’ it, glass o’ grog.” Several glasses of the ship’s rum, well diluted with water, were “lent” to his Majesty, and several pipes of tobacco. After remaining about an hour on board the Warspite, Bungaree was piped over the side, taking with him “loans” to the extent of five old shirts, a handkerchief full of biscuit, and a cold leg of mutton. A marine officer offered to “lend” him an old coat; but, after examining the loan, and discovering that it did not belong to an officer entitled to two epaulettes, Bungaree shook his head, and remarked that it “would not do.” But, going to the gangway, he threw the garment down into his boat, in which his Queens were sitting. Onion picked up, the old red coat, and, as the day was rather cold, put it on, and wore it in the streets of Sydney habitually.
Having had the misfortune (if misfortune it were), when I was in my sixteenth year, to be transported from my native land, Botany Bay, to the penal settlement of Great Britain, I lost sight of King Bungaree for a long time. I was tried in my mother’s drawing-room, on a charge of having a great aptitude for learning, but a want of perseverance in my studies. The sentence passed upon me, was, “Seven years to England,” the first four to be kept at hard labour with a private tutor, and the remaining three to be spent in one of the penitentiaries of Oxford or Cambridge. I was informed that every indulgence (compatible with reason, and with reference to my position as one of “the lords of Botany Bay”) would be allowed me; but upon no account would I be permitted to return, until the full period of seven years had “expired.”.
As I am an Australian, writing a biographical memoir of my aboriginal sovereign, I may be permitted to say a few words concerning myself, and my feelings during the term of my banishment. At first I felt supremely miserable, and I believe I drooped, like any other exotic when removed from its own congenial clime to a colder one. There were two other youths, the sons of a colonial magnate, transported in my company. They were sharers of my unhappiness. On the first day that we put foot on the land of our exile we were terrified almost out of our wits. We were coming up from Weymouth to London, on the top of a mail coach, and were overtaken, near Salisbury, by a heavy snow-storm. Snow we had heard of; but we had never before seen and felt it. The other passengers laughed and were very merry; but this did not prevent me putting (with livid lips, I fancy) this serious question, “Is there any chance of it burying us? It will do so if it continue for some hours like this.” Then, on the day which followed our arrival in town, I experienced another awful fright. We all three left our hotel in Covent-garden, and had the temerity to penetrate into the Strand. Here, while gazing with open mouth at the shop windows and the dense crowd of people, hurying to and fro, I was separated from my companions; and, as I had forgotten the (then to me) outlandish name of the hotel—the Tavistock—I knew not how I should get back to it. Fortunately, after taxing my memory to the utmost, I did remember Covent-garden; and, thus, by many inquiries, I at last found the hotel and my friends, who, like myself, had lost themselves for a while. They were much concerned for my safety, until they saw me; and one of them rather rationally inquired, “Why the deuce didn’t you cooey, when you missed us?” Had I thought of it, I should have done so, though the act would certainly have astonished the weak minds of the English natives, and have had the effect of bringing a mob around me. I know that the cooey that I gave one night from the top of Queen Anne’s tower in Trinity, Cambridge, created such a sensation, that not only the whole of the college, but half the entire university, turned out to ascertain “What is it? what can it mean?” The cooey was heard in Downing, in St. Peter’s, at Barnewell, and at Chesterton. One of my co-exiles, who happened to be returning from the last-named village, heard it, and answered it. I remember that one of the public tutors of the college, Dr. Whistle, was very angry with me, and said that I ought to have left that savage yell (it was thus he spoke of that wonderful and valuable call of my native land) behind me when I came to a civilised quarter of the world. Soon afterwards I wished from the bottom of my heart that I had done so; for the call had become catching, and nightly from every college came forth cooeys, some of them very fair, but, generally speaking, very feeble imitations of that “voice-throwing” so peculiar to the natives of New Holland and those Australians who have used it from boyhood. I beg to state that I was not mischievously inclined when I cooeyed, like a “black fellow,” from Queen Anne’s tower. I was merely giving a party of friends, whom I had been entertaining at supper, some idea of what we Australians did when we lost our way in the bush, little dreaming that—just as when one jackawl in India strikes up a howl, all the pack must join in it—the sound would become infectious, and eventually a tremendous nuisance.
The sports of England had not the slightest charm for me. They were not sufficiently exciting. What was fox hunting to us? To see an animal, rather like a dingo, or native dog, pursued and run down by an enormous pack of hounds, the field mounted on swift blood horses, and the ground a cultivated country, intersected by miserable hedges and ditches with here and there a five-barred gate or a brook! We had been accustomed to hunt the kangaroo, with only five or six dogs, upon stock horses, over a perfectly wild country, intersected by gullies or deep ravines and patches of dense brushwood; or to ride down the emu at full gallop (without the assistance of dogs), and kill him by flogging his neck with the thong of a cattle whip. Then, the fishing of England. What was that to us? Flipping at a stream like the Thames at Richmond, with a rod and line, the hook baited with a fly, a worm, and, after a day’s work, returning with a little basket half full of tiny creatures, scarcely worth the trouble of catching! We had been accustomed to hire a whaleboat, every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, sail down to Watson’s Bay, near the Sydney Heads, drop anchor, and fish with large hooks and strong lines for Schnapper-fish weighing from seven to twenty-five pounds; and frequently would we hook an enormous black shark ten feet long, play him, get him alongside, and there destroy him with the boat hook. In a couple of hours, we could take as many large fish as would fill a cart—fish quite equal in every respect to the turbot, so highly prized in England. That had been our fishing. As for pheasant and partridge shooting, we agreed that it was like the destruction, in cold blood (and with the assistance of dogs), of a parcel of barn-door fowls. “Sporting!” we would sometimes say to our friends who breathed that word, “what do you know about sporting in this old, worn-out country? Sporting! You have never seen sporting, and you have no idea what it is.”
It was the same with the aspect of England itself. We wanted to see deep and dark-blue salt water, laving the milk-white sands of semicircular bays of a mile or two in extent, grotesquely formed rocks, and the land wooded to high-water mark with evergreen trees of luxuriant foliage, and heaths of every hue and dye. Nor did the watering-places in England satisfy us. We once went down to Brighton. It was rather boisterous weather, and a boatman remarked to us that it was “seldom they saw a surf like that”, pointing to the billows. “Surf!” we ejaculated. “Surf! Do you call that surf? Bah! Make a fourth with us, and we will pull out against it in a cockle-shell. Surf! If you want to see surf, go to Bondi Bay, about five or six miles from Sydney. That’s the place to see surf. Every crested wave—giant waves, not pigmies like these—weighs millions of tons of water, and when it breaks upon the beach, in stormy weather, the sound may be heard twelve or thirteen miles off—nay, more than that, it has often been heard at Parramatta, which is eighteen miles distant, as the crow flies.”
It was the same with the forests in England: Windsor Forest, for instance. If any one said to us; “There is a noble tree—what do you think of that?” “Tree!” we would reply—”tree! Do you call that a tree? Why it is not taller than a blue gum sapling. In our country you may ride through a forest and see trees which would, at the butt, measure, on the average, ten feet in diameter; and we have seen some trees twenty yards in circumference. Those are trees if you like; always in leaf, and with the outer bark the colour of cream and the inner bark the colour of a rose—not like these old grey dwarfs, which have the appearance of being dead for six months in the year.”
However, before the expiration of our sentence of seven years, we all became not only reconciled to Old England, its sports, its institutions, and sensible of its manifold advantages over those of any other portion of the earth; but when we had taken our degrees, and had been (in consideration, seemingly, of abjuring the Pope) invested with black gowns and white horsehair wigs, we left her shores and our friends with something like regret. After a passage of one hundred and nine days I again placed my foot on the land of my birth. But, oh! what a change was everywhere observable! A change, according to my idea, very much for the worse. The ships in the harbour, instead of numbering only ten or eleven, numbered upwards of forty or fifty. The streets were crowded with emigrants of both sexes, and of the lowest order of the people, who, under the “bounty system”, had been swept out of the streets of London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and minor cities or towns. Old buildings, many of them weather-boarded houses, which had been familiar to my sight from childhood, had been pulled down, and on their sites were erected rows of shops or merchants’ warehouses. So vast had been the tide of emigration to Australia, so busy had been the population during the term of my exile, that I scarcely recognised my native land.
I had not been in Sydney more than three days, when, to my great joy, I espied at a distance the cocked-hat and old red coat of poor old King Bungaree. He was coming up George-street. His gait was very shaky, but it was still Bungaree’s gait. When I met him, I took off my hat and saluted him. He peered into my face a few seconds, and, then, recollecting me, offered me his hand, shook mine rather coldly, and said rapidly, “Oh! well, what can I do for you? I very busy now; no time to spare; talk to you some other day; yes, yes, good morning”. This change in Bungaree, which I could not at the moment account for, pained me. I thought that amidst all the changes, observable in every direction, Bungaree at least would have remained himself. However, notwithstanding his Majesty’s remark that he wished to get rid of me, he entered into conversation, and presently, in his old confidential way, said, “Len’ it a sisspence”. I complied, and requesting him to call upon me soon, at my mother’s house, bade him “good-day”. He was then alone. None of his Queens were with him; but I had no time to ask him many questions, for I was on my way to Government House, to pay my respect to Sir George Gipps, and deliver a packet which had been entrusted to my care. Whether his Excellency had not looked at my card, or whether he had mistaken me for some one else, I don’t know; but I had scarcely made my bow, when I was greeted with, “Oh! well? what I can do for you? I am very busy just now, have not a single moment to spare; talk to you some other day. Yes, yes, I am now off to the Council. Good morning.”
I had never seen Sir George before, but I instantly recognised my altered King Bungaree. This anecdote, a few weeks afterwards, reached Sir George’s ears through a lady, and he was not a little amused by it.
On the following day, at ten am., his Majesty King Bungaree was announced. I received him in the back yard; for my mother would never allow him to come into the house. He was, on this occasion, accompanied by two of his Queens, “Broomstick” and “Pincher”. Having “lent” the king and each of the queens a “glass o’ rum”, I proceeded to interrogate him.
“Well, King Bungaree,” I said, “where’s ‘Onion’ and the other Queens, ‘Boatman,’ and ‘Ask-about?'”
“Onion’s dead.” he replied. “Two emigrant mans get drunk and kill her with brickbat on top o’ rocks. Boatman’s got leg broke and can’t walk, and Ask-about stop along with her on North Shore, to len’ it bread and drink o’ water”.
“Who lent you that coat?” “One Colonel up in Barrack-square”.
“Has not the Governor lent you a coat?”
“Not yet; but he len’ it by-and-by. At present he only len’ it ‘Very busy now; yes, yes; good morning.'”
“What do you think of Sir George Gipps?”
“When that my frien’ Doctor Lang write a book about all the gubbernors, he one day met it in Domain, and len’ it half a dump. He then laugh and say, ‘King Bungaree, what you think of Gubbernor Bourke!’ and I say to him, ‘Stop a bit. He no yet leave the colney. When he go, then I tell you, master.’ Gubbernor Gipps only just come. Stop till he go, then I speak.”
Doctor Lang, in his admirable work, the History of New South Wales, relates this in his preface or concluding chapter, observing that he took King Bungaree’s hint, and reserved Sir Richard Bourke’s administration for some future edition.
When I was a boy, Bungaree had been a matter of mere amusement to me. Now I was a man, he was an object of interest; able as he was, to remember the first big ships that entered Sydney harbour, when the penal settlement was founded; the sensations of the tribe to which he then a boy, belonged, when they beheld them; and the terror, which prevailed when the savage, for the first time, saw the face and clothed form of the white man. He had often talked to me of these and other such matters; but I was then too young to take any interest in his discourse further than what related to the best bays to fish in, or the localities in which “five corners”, “ground berries”, and “gollions” (native fruits), were most plentiful. As for fish, even if I had had now any desire to catch them, I could not have done it any of the bays of Sydney harbour. Like the kangaroo and the emu, they had retreated beyond the bounds of civilised and busy life. They were now only to be caught in the bays outside “the Head.” As to the native fruits I have mentioned, I doubt whether I could have obtained a quart within five miles of Sydney had I offered five guineas for it.
King Bungaree (after swallowing another “loan”), in reply to my questions, said that when the tribe to which he belonged first beheld the big ships, some thought they were sea monsters; others that they were gigantic birds, and the sails were their wings; while many declared that they were a mixture of gigantic fish and gigantic bird, and that the boats which were towed astern, were their young ones. He heightened his description, by acting the consternation of the tribe on that occasion. He told me they were too much terrified to offer any hostile demonstrations, mid that when they first heard the report of a musket, and of a ship’s gun, they fancied those weapons were living agents of the white man; that, where the town of Sydney was situated, kangaroos formerly abounded, and that these animals were seldom speared or interfered with; that fish and oysters, and the native fruits, were their chief articles of food, and that animals—the kangaroo and opossum—were killed only to supply the little amount of clothing then required amongst them; that the use of the hook and line was unknown until the establishment of the colony; and that a spear constructed for the especial purpose was the only means they had of taking fish in the shallow waters of the bays. The deep sea fish—the “schnapper”, the “king fish”, the “grounder” and the rock cod—were beyond their reach. Mullet, whiting, and mackerel, which came in large shoals within range of the spear, were the only species they had tasted. Sometimes a shark, which had followed the smaller fish into the shallow water, and swam with his fins above the surface, would fall a victim to the spear.
Each tribe rarely numbered more than fifty or sixty, and the chief was, by right, the oldest man in it. When they increased and multiplied beyond that number, fifty or sixty, there was a new tribe formed, and they occupied a distinct tract of land, to which they were required to confine themselves. This tract of land rarely exceeded an area of forty miles in extent. Strange to say, the tribes beyond Parramatta did not understand the language of the Sydney (Woolloomooloo) tribe. The tribes on the north shore had no communication with the tribes on the south shore, except when they invaded each other—which was seldom—and did battle. On these occasions they swam the harbour, carrying their spears, waddies (clubs), boomerangs, and shields on their heads. The object of these invasions was to plunder each other of women. King Bungaree denied that they were cannibals; but admitted that they roasted and tasted the enemies whom they slew in battle. The waddies and spears of the different tribes were not exactly alike in make, but the boomerang was of uniform construction ; and I know, of my own personal experience subsequently acquired, that amongst all the savage tribes of New Holland the use of the boomerang is universal. Sir Thomas Mitchell, late Surveyor-General of Australia, and a very able mathematician, when he first saw the flight of a boomerang, and examined the weapon, exclaimed, “The savage who invented this, in whatever time, was gifted by the Creator with a knowledge which He has withheld from civilised man.” And, writing of the boomerang propeller, Sir Thomas says, That rotary motion can be communicated to an instrument, acting as a screw, so as to be sustained in air, without causing that fluid to recede, is suggested by the flight of the boomerang, a missile which few in this country can have seen used, or seen at all. This is a thin flat weapon, shaped somewhat like a new moon, but not so pointed at the cusps, and more resembling in the middle an elbow than an arc, being about two feet long, two inches broad, seldom so much as a quarter of an inch thick, and made of hard, heavy wood. The natives of Australia throw this to great distances, and to great heights in the air, imparting to it two sorts of motion, one of which is direct, the other rotary, by which last the missile revolves round its own centre of gravity, having a twist into the plane of a very fine screw. The effect of this almost imperceptible screw on air all who have been witnesses to a boomerang’s flight will remember. To those who have not we can only say that the rotary motion survives the direct impetus with which the weapon is made to ascend, so as to make it screw its way back to the very spot from whence it was thrown, thus enabling mere gravitation to undo all the effect of the thrower’s arm in sending it upwards.”
The children, male and female, of the aborigines were taught, or rather made, to swim, by being put into deep water soon after they were born. As swimmers and divers, I do not think the blacks of New South Wales were superior to the Arabs at Aden, or the Cingalese at Ceylon, but they were certainly equal to them. A captain of a ship, in the harbour of Port Jackson, once lost a case of claret overboard: a six-dozen case. The ship was anchored in eight fathoms of water. Four blacks dived down and brought it up, each man holding a corner of the chest on the palm of his left hand. Incredible as it may seem, they were under the surface of the stream for more than three minutes. I can remember one day, when out with King Bungaree in his boat, losing a pen-knife, with which I was cutting bait on the gunwale. Queen Onion cried out, “I get it!” and, dropping from the boat’s bows in her bedgown, she lifted her hands and went down like a stone or a shot. After being lost to sight for at least a minute and a half, up she came, like a bundle of old clothes, with the pen-knife in her mouth. We were then fishing off Garden Island, where the water is very deep. I doubt if there were less than fifteen fathoms under our keel.
The power of “tracking” was still left to old King Bungaree and his tribe, but they rarely or never exercised it. Their savage and simple natures had been contaminated and corrupted by their more civilized fellow-creatures, and their whole thoughts seemed to be centered in how they could most speedily become intoxicated and sleep off its effects. Bread and rum, Bungaree said, were at first distasteful to his palate; but, after a while, “he liked ’em berry much, and did not care for nothing else”. King Bungaree was the only old aboriginal I ever saw in the vicinity of Sydney. Drink, and its effects, destroyed the majority of both sexes long before they attained the prime of life. How the race continued to be propagated within fifty miles of Sydney, even when I last left the colony, in 1843, was more than I could understand. It was otherwise, however, in the far distant interior. Some of the wild tribes in the squatting districts (where rum and tobacco were too precious to be given to the blacks, either out of freak or a misplaced generosity), were as fine specimens of the human shape as any sculptor could desire as models. In addition to the elegance of their forms, their eyes were brilliant and piercing, their teeth white as snow, their agility superhuman, and their love of innocent mirth perfectly childlike.
Of King Bungaree’s principles and opinions I scarcely know what to say; nor even, as his biographer, am I particularly anxious to dilate on the subject. But I may mention that he one day confessed to me that of all the governors who ever swayed the destinies of New South Wales, General Macquarie was the greatest man. On probing him for his reasons, I discovered that the kind-hearted old officer, whom he held in such respect and veneration, was his greatest creditor. The general, according to his Majesty’s account (and I believe him implicitly), had “lent” him more cocked-hats, more coats, more shirts, more loaves of bread, and more glasses of grog, than any other ruler in Australia; and, further, he told me it was General Macquarie who “lent” him that brass plate which he wore for so many, many years, and which was no doubt found on his Majesty’s breast when he breathed his last.
Great article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!
This article is a work of fiction written by journalist John Lang for Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round (21 May 1859). He has Bungaree imitating two governors of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke and Sir George Gipps, who did not take office until after Bungaree’s death in 1830
Keith Vincent Smith, author of King Bungaree (1992) and ‘Bungaree: Sailing with Matthew Flinders’ in MARI NAWI (2010).